Album Review: Chris Robinson Brotherhood: The Magic Door (2012)

One of the difficulties when reviewing new releases by established artists is that there’s a natural tendency to compare their new work to their old work. In many ways it’s hard not to. As listeners we’ve created relationships with artists. We have expectations for what they will say, how they will sound and how their art will make us feel.

Obsessive music fans frequently fall into the trap of thinking first about an artist’s legacy and then determining how the new release fits into an established narrative. Is the new record a return to form or is it an experimental departure? Do the new songs enhance the artist’s reputation or does it call into question their entire oeuvre?

The challenge is to judge new music in isolation and let it stand on its own merits, rather than being viewed within the context of what came before. In television terms it’s the equivalent of focusing on individual episodes rather than whole series. Of course, this approach isn’t easy when an artist consciously decides to revisit the past, as is the case with The Magic Door, the second studio release from The Chris Robinson Brotherhood.

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The Magic Door hits our turntables a mere three months after the band’s debut album Big Moon Ritual (review here) and is quite clearly a companion album. Many of the observations made about that album also apply to The Magic Door, which makes perfect sense, as both albums were recorded during the same sessions (it’s been reported that 27 songs were cut at the sessions, with 14 released between the two records and 3 more as bonus tracks, leaving 10 more in the vault.)

The band remains: Chris Robinson on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Neal Casal on lead guitar and backing vocals, Adam MacDougall on keys and backing vocals, Mark “Muddy” Dutton on bass and backing vocals and George Sluppick on drums. The band remains: tight in execution while loose in vibe, incredibly talented and consummate craftsmen.

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Further complicating matters is not only the fact that this is the second album released by the band in just 3 months, but the album also contains one cover tune (Hank Ballard’s “Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go”), two late-era Black Crowes tunes (“Appaloosa” and “Little Lizzie Mae”) and one Brothers of a Feather tune (“Someday Past the Sunset”) leaving only three CRB originals (“Vibration & Light Suite”, “Sorrow of a Blue Eyed Liar” and “Wheel Don’t Roll”).

I have no secret insight into Mr. Robinson’s thought process so I can only comment based upon the aural evidence presented to us over the 18 month existence of the Brotherhood. My theory is that Chris is chasing a specific sound that blends early rock and roll with psychedelia. He’s swimming further backwards into the protozoan swamp of rock and roll to the place that provided much of the inspiration to the musicians of 1967. He’s now playing with the country, blues and rockabilly of the Everly Brothers and Jimmy Reed and Carl Perkins.

For many years Chris appeared to be consciously following in the footsteps of Gram Parsons, he of the cosmic country R&B. And while Gram is still obviously a big influence, it appears as if Chris is going back to the source in an attempt to forge his own path – a path that clearly shares some ground with Gram, but more accurately reflects Chris’s gifts. For while both Chris and Gram could write heartbreaking ballads, Chris is a much stronger singer, with his confident croon replacing Gram’s tender fragility.

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So what about the relationship between Big Moon Ritual and The Magic Door? Well, to put it in Grateful Deadian terms, The Magic Door is a first-set (rock) album as opposed to the second-set (jam) feel of Big Moon Ritual. In other words, like the construction of a classic Grateful Dead setlist, the first set features shorter and more upbeat songs as opposed to the languorous jams of the second set (with a few exceptions).

Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go” is a strong opener that really establishes the band’s psychedelic rock and roll credentials. It features Chris’s big voice, Adam’s throwback keys, harmony vocals and Neal’s tasteful solos.

Someday Past the Sunset” is a bouncy 8-bar blues that definitely benefits from the full-band treatment (as opposed to the acoustic BOAF arrangement) and has some nice slide work from Casal.

Appaloosa” has a less rustic feel than the Crowes’ version and is dominated by Adam’s keyboard lines. Neal has a short, tasty solo as well. In all honesty, it’s an unnecessary reprise of a strong song.

Vibration & Light Suite” is a monster tune – a signature song for this band – epically delivering a strong melody within the frame of a long-ass jam. It works spectacularly well, finding the band stepping into virtual prog-rock territory. (It’s no surprise that Neal has sported a Yes tee shirt on stage before).

Little Lizzie Mae” is rescued from the obscurity of the Crowes’ “Cabin Fever” DVD credits roll. And this time I’m glad that the CRB brought it back. It’s one of the stronger rockers in the catalog, with an appealing, organic vibe. It’s also the original that most sounds like it could have been sung by Buddy Holly.

Sorrow of a Blue Eyed Liar” possesses an intro that could pass for a Billy Joel song. And while that would normally be an insult, it presages a beautiful ballad that is both spacey and tender.

Wheel Don’t Roll” closes out the disc on solid ground – a confident ballad driven by vocals and keys and punctuated by harmonies and restrained solos.

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As proven by The Magic Door (and their previous studio and stage work) the CRB are clearly the best band in the world within their genre. Of course, their genre of music can only be vaguely defined as “cosmic rock and roll”. If you’re a student of rock and roll with a particular fondness for psychedelic and folk-country-rock then you’re going to dig this band, and this album, a lot.

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Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go: 4
Someday Past the Sunset: 3
Appaloosa: 3
Vibration & Light Suite: 4
Little Lizzie Mae: 4
Sorrow of a Blue Eyed Liar: 4
Wheel Don’t Roll: 3
The Magic Door: 3.6 (out of 4)

4 = great (exceptional composition/performance)
3 = good (a song you’ll always listen to)
2 = okay (has some redeeming qualities)
1 = poor (has no redeeming qualities)

If you’re interested in more stuff like this, I have previously written at length about both the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and The Black Crowes.

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Building the Perfect Party Playlist

A friend recently asked me for some recommendations on putting together a music playlist for a party. And while I’m pretty sure he was just asking for some song suggestions, I decided that what he really needed was something much more valuable: my advice.

Sure, I could have simply told him that drunk Gen Xers like “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crowes. But that would be both accurate and helpful, two things I’m not fond of being. (I kid.) (Not really.)

So here goes – my proprietary approach to building the perfect party playlist:

One List

First you’ll need to decide whether one playlist will suffice or if you’ll need multiple playlists to properly structure the flow of the evening. A keg party usually needs one big playlist. A fancy dinner party will probably require two lists: one for cocktails and one for dinner. And I always keep a ‘70s dance mix up my sleeve for the late night bump-and-grind crowd.

Two Decades

Think about who’s coming to your party and how old they are. Most peoples’ interest in music tends to peak in college, so build your list around the era that most partygoers were in college. The later the night gets – and the drunker your crowd gets – the more you should move backwards in time. Booze-infused people tend to get nostalgic for the music that was around when they were kids. That’s your prime window: the 20 years between childhood and college for your average attendee.

Three Genres

While I’m perfectly content to listen to late ‘60s/early ‘70s hippie rock all day, every day, not everyone has the sophisticated taste in music that I do. Therefore I always make sure that three genres are well-represented in my party playlists: rock, pop and R&B. For the most part you’re going to want to avoid the polarizing genres of blues, jazz, rap and country. (Unless you’re a big Cowboy Troy fan, obviously.)

Four Minutes

I’ve often said that good songs don’t even get cooking until the fifth minute. Hell, I’m listening to “Cowboy Movie” right now, which clocks in at a healthy 8:26. But no party playlist should contain any songs over four minutes. A good mix will feature a lot of variety, which means that not everybody will dig every song. The best way to keep the momentum going for everyone is to make sure the songs change pretty quickly – which sadly means no long jams.

Five Last Tips

1) If you’re making a themed list (e.g. Christmas, Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day) keep the specialty music to no more than 25% of the list. (No one can take that much U2.)

2) Lesser-known hits from well-known artists always play well. Too much Top 20 and you’ll sound like a shuffle radio station; too many obscure bands and people will get bored.

3) Limit the number of songs from any one band. (Especially U2.)

4) Avoid songs with depressing chord structures and lyrics – they’ll subconsciously ruin the party. As the great Nigel Tufnel once said: “It’s part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I’m working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don’t know why.”

5) Seriously, no U2.

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Album Review: The Tarnished Gold by Beachwood Sparks (2012)

When a band is compared favorably to the holy trinity of West Coast hippie rock (The Byrds, The Buffalo Springfield, The Flying Burrito Brothers) I get really excited, because those are three of my favorite bands. I would say that nary a day goes by that I don’t listen to at least one of those bands (much to the chagrin of my wife, my kids, my co-workers, and random people that sit in traffic next to me.)

Of course, I also get quite apprehensive when bands are compared to the holy trinity, because that’s setting the bar unrealistically high. Who could ever live up to that comparison?

Then again, this is America, the land where we wrap our Taco Bell in Doritos. If anyone could figure out how to improve up the most perfect hippie rock ever created, it’s us.

So are the Beachwood Sparks, as represented on their new album The Tarnished Gold, the fulfillment of the cosmic American dream?

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First, let’s dissect exactly what we mean by hippie rock or “Cosmic American Music” – a term invented by Gram Parsons to describe his specific musical vision.

The Flying Burrito Brothers, on their landmark debut The Gilded Palace of Sin, brought Gram’s vision fully to life with the addition of a rhythm and blues backbeat (courtesy of Chris Ethridge) to traditional country music with rock-oriented lyrics. The sound is dominated by Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel guitar and Gram Parsons’ harmonies with Chris Hillman. In short: country + R&B + pedal steel + harmonies.

The Buffalo Springfield were a combustible unit defined by the separate visions of their leaders, unified for an all-too-brief time. Stephen Stills brought the blues, Latin influence and guitar virtuosity. Neil Young brought eclectic electrified folk and emotive garage rock. Richie Furay brought country influences and a level of polish to both vocals and arrangement. In short: folk + blues + a smidge of country.

The Byrds were one of the three most important bands in the development of rock and roll. They popularized folk-rock, psychedelic-rock, and country-rock. They mixed Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12 string guitar with Chris Hillman’s fluid bass playing, David Crosby’s jazzy weirdness and stellar harmony vocals, and Gene Clark’s great pop tunes. In short: folk + psychedelia + harmonies + country.

So, for a band to be considered “cosmic American music” they need to offer spacey countrified folk rock featuring harmonies and, hopefully, some pedal steel guitar.

Kind of like Beachwood Sparks.

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The Tarnished Gold is a new release, coming 11 years after their last album. I’m pretty sure that I saw them open up for The Black Crowes many years ago, but let’s be honest: my track record with catching and remembering opening acts is pretty abysmal.

I recently stumbled upon this album while looking for modern music that sounds like old hippie rock. It would seem to be an easy task to find more bands that sound like the old bands I love, but something always seems to be missing with the Fleet Foxes and Dawes of the world. It’s not that they’re not talented bands.  It’s just that the popular modern folk-rockers are too earnest and not weird enough for my tastes. I need a little freaky spacey vibe going on to keep me interested.

And I always need quality songs. Underneath the playing and the arrangements there has to be a melody-driven song that provides the launch pad for exploration. It’s the difference between jam bands and rock bands that jam. I love a good jam, but it’s got to be rooted in a strong song.

Well, folks, I’m happy to report that The Tarnished Gold delivers quite a few excellent tunes.

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The opener, “Forget this Song” has a dreamy vibe that effectively sets the tone for the album. Understated pedal-steel and tasteful harmonies feel both lush and sparse. “Sparks Fly Again” features a fun chorus that feels like The Beach Boys on (more) acid and a nice trippy guitar solo. “Mollusk” effectively alternates between the yearning pedal steel and martial-sounding drums. “Tarnished Gold” is a very sweet, mature ballad. The brilliant arrangement of “Water from the Well” washes over the listener, flowing like the tides, reinforcing the lyrics. “Talk About Lonesome” features some real nice pickin’ subtly buried in the mix, blending the pedal steel with banjo, acoustic guitar and even some harmonica. I’d like to hear what they could do with that one live. “Leave That Light On” returns the album to the dominant mellow vibe. “Nature’s Light” is a delicate song based on a nice acoustic guitar progression. “No Queremos Oro” is a fun novelty song that is reminiscent of a Mexican narcocorrido tune. “Earl Jean” is another effective tune that balances a wistful verse with an upbeat chorus. “Alone Together” starts with a simple harmonica riff and evolves into a beautiful song with an addictive melody. “The Orange Grass Special” is another quality upbeat tune with bluegrass influences. Finally, “Goodbye” is a pleasant and slight lullaby, a fitting end to the song cycle.

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So back to the original question: are the Beachwood Sparks the second coming of The Burrito Brothers, The Springfield or The Byrds?

Of course not. Like I said earlier, that’s an entirely unfair comparison. The Springfield featured three legitimate rock and roll legends when they were bursting with energy and ideas. The Burritos created one of the most original, amazing albums in the history of music. The Byrds changed the world three times.

But the Beachwood Sparks are an excellent band that is obviously influenced by the holy trinity without being mere imitators. I’d say that the closest comparison for The Tarnished Gold is The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Both possess a dreamy quality and a consistent vibe throughout the album, while the individual tunes feature experimentation and variation.

The Tarnished Gold is an excellent album by a talented band of players and songwriters and I highly recommend it to any and all fans of hippie rock.

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Forget the Song: 4
Sparks Fly Again: 4
Mollusk: 4
Tarnished Gold: 4
Water from the Well: 4
Talk About Lonesome: 3
Leave That Light On: 3
Nature’s Light: 3
No Queremos Oro: 3
Earl Jean: 3
Alone Together: 4
The Orange Grass Special: 3
Goodbye: 4

 The Tarnished Gold: 3.5 (out of 4)

People I Liked Better When They Were Fatter

For many people, losing weight is easy. They eat less, exercise more, and next thing you know, they’re slightly less porky than before. I have often tried this method myself, but as a sufferer of the horrendous disease laziusdoritosbeeritus, it’s scientifically harder for me than most people. As a result I’ve been toying with a few other options.

Option #1: Move to an island in the South Pacific where fatness is a symbol of success, power and virility.

Pros: get to wear a floral muumuu, eat lots of spam and pineapple, can make cool things out of bamboo

Cons: lots of mosquitoes, not in Boston, potential lack of Doritos & Miller Lite

Option #2: Get really, really fat, then go back to being regular fat so people think I look good.

Pros: can eat anything, no need to exercise, will look like a red William Conrad

Cons: fingers too fat to work iphone, won’t be able to wear my favorite pair of skinny jeans

Option #3: Do nothing and hope the rest of the world gets fatter while I stay the same.

Pros: do nothing

Cons: might take a while for the rest of the world to surpass me

While all of these options are pretty compelling, option #3 got me thinking about famous people that have lost lots of weight. Obviously when famous people lose weight they make me look worse and I hate them for that. Specifically, here are some people that I liked much better when they were fatter.

Ricky Gervais

The English comedian – famous for creating The Office – is one of the few British people that I find funny. But I think his weight loss has hurt his career. Skinny Ricky’s problem is that his humor tends to be a little mean. Remember when he made fun of people of all those nice actors at the Golden Globes? Mean humor coming from a fat guy is always welcome. Mean humor from a skinny guy comes off as bullying. So Ricky’s going to either have to get nicer or fatter if he wants to make another $100 million bucks.

Al Roker

I’m not sure why people blamed Ann Curry for The Today Show’s fall from grace. Sure, Ann was a robot (and not a cool robot like Bender Rodriguez), but I think the real culprit here is Al Roker. Ever since Al got the belly band and turned into Skinny Al he freaks me out. Here’s the thing: weather reports are boring so you need to spice them up with some boobs. And I don’t care whose boobs they are. As soon as Al got skinny I lost interest in The Today Show.

Bill Clinton

Has anyone in the world gotten less cool than Bill Clinton? Back when he was President, Bill was awesome. To me he personified America: kind of smart, kind of trashy, kind of a mess. Fat Bill Clinton was a dude you’d want to party with. You knew he was up for anything. He’s the guy that talks the rest of us into another unnecessary drink and a stop at the diner on the way home. But Skinny Bill is all sanctimonious and always talking about debt relief or some shit going down in the middle of nowhere. Can somebody please bring back the real Bill Clinton!

Alec Baldwin

Actually, I’m glad that Alec has dropped a little weight recently, as I really hope that he lives forever and becomes King of the Earth. His fat-jectory is kind of perfect: he went from being a super-handsome skinny guy to a super-handsome fat guy to a super-handsome medium-sized guy. But it seems like he started taking himself a lot less seriously once he got fat. Chew on this theory: without fatty foods we never would have gotten Jack Donaghy.

W. Axl Rose

Just kidding! Axl Rose is a loathsome individual no matter what his current pant size. I’ve hated Axl ever since we saw Guns N Roses at SPAC back on the Use Your Illusion tour. Guess what Axl? You can only call me a motherf**ker 47 times during a concert if your band doesn’t suck. This is really just an excuse for posting this delicious photo of Fat Axl.

An Open Letter to my Neighbors in Swampscott about Adam Sandler & Grown Ups 2

Dearest Friends, Neighbors, Old Man Jogger,

For far too long I have sat idly by and watched as this town has torn itself asunder over the controversial issue of Adam Sandler filming Grown Ups 2 in Swampscott. Brother has taken up arms against brother, fighting over whether the Hollywoodization of our little beach town is the worst thing to happen since the White Hen turned into a 7-11.

Well, I have one little thing to say to the naysayers.

Godfather 2.

Who in 1974 could have foreseen that a little film about gangsters would turn into a smash hit, loved by audiences worldwide and winner of 6 academy awards?

Am I suggesting that Grown Ups 2 might be as critically-acclaimed and successful as Godfather 2?

Yes. Yes I am.

And then where will you naysayers be?

I’ll tell you where you’ll be: on the wrong side of history.

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What did Adam Sandler ever do to deserve your scorn? He’s a nice Jewish boy that’s spent his entire life making people happy. And all he asks for in return is fortune and fame. Sounds like a fair deal to me.

Remember in The Wedding Singer when that grandma started rapping? Everyone loved that. And do you think the Betty White-aissance would have ever happened without rapping granny? I doubt it.

Remember how much people loved Billy Madison & Happy Gilmore? Admittedly, I’ve never seen either of those movies, but people seem to think fondly of them.

And who couldn’t relate to that scene in the Grown Ups trailer when the guys got busted for peeing in the pool? Now I’m not saying that I pee in pools, but is that blue pee-revealing ink real or is it a joke? (Seriously, is it real?)

And I really loved those Jack & Jill posters from last year. Again, I never watched the movie but those posters made me happy every single time I saw them. I’m happy now just thinking about those posters. Who could hate a man that can spread joy through mere posters?

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Think of all of the excitement that Adam Sandler and his merry band of thespians have brought to our town. One day my son came home from school, bursting with joy, because he saw “Adam Stantler” at the middle school.

A friend saw Adam and his wife talking a stroll on Marblehead Neck, just like us regular folks. Imagine that! Adam Sandler strolling like a regular person! Oh what I wouldn’t give to see that.

And did you hear? David Spade was at the train station. I’d sure like to ask him how he’s so successful with the ladies.

Maya Rudolph was at the Whole Foods! A star buying the same over-priced organic produce that I don’t buy because I like regular produce from Stop & Shop. But if I was buying that delicious Whole Foods guacamole I could have seen Maya Rudolph!

And Shaq was at the police station. I like him.

I haven’t heard any news about Kevin James but I sure hope I run into him. My kids and I love all of the Kevin James movies. Say what you will, but that dude is funny.

And Salma Hayek. Swoon. ‘Nuff said.

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I understand that some of you might not be as comfortable with celebrities as I am. I come from a long line of celebrity boosters/stalkers. One time my Mom stalked Walter Mathau so expertly that she and my Dad ended up hanging in his trailer (with him) all day.

And where is Walter now? He’s dead. But that is most likely unrelated to my parents.

Personally, I was once punked by the great James Earl Jones. And believe you me, you haven’t lived until you’ve been practical joked by Darth Vader.

Think of it this way: Swampscott has a long history as a resort town that caters to celebrities. Calvin Coolidge used to rip it up here back in the day. The town was full of hotels and the well-heeled cooling their heels in our cold, stinky ocean.

Filming movies and hosting celebrities isn’t a new thing for Swampscott, it’s actually an embrace of our history. And what do we lose? A little parking at the second-best beach in town. Big whoop.

Please join with me in letting Adam and the gang know that we’re happy – nay, honored – to have them with us this summer.

Thank you.

(p.s. I know that I’ve railed against the concept of “open letters” in the past but this time, for the sake of our town’s future, I felt like I needed to make an exception.)

BY THE WAY: If you got here by googling “swampscott + breaking bad” then you’ll probably want to read my essay: Stop Breaking Down: What the Cars on “Breaking Bad” Tell Us About the True Nature of the Characters

Album Review: Chris Robinson Brotherhood: Big Moon Ritual (2012)

When asked about his new album, Big Moon Ritual, Chris Robinson has described it as “psychedelic”, seemingly placing it in the company of the classic psychedelic rock albums of 1967: Love’s Forever Changes, Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, among others.

Upon listening to the album, however, one realizes that Chris isn’t using “psychedelic” to describe the album’s genre but rather to suggest the music as a potential avenue to a psychedelic experience.

Psychedelic experiences are often linked with hippies and drugs but the truth is that drugs are merely one means in which an individual can attempt to connect with something larger than themselves. Religion and spirituality, yoga and meditation, and dancing and singing all have a long history of being used by people in attempt to clear their minds, subsume their egos and live in the present moment.

Big Moon Ritual, taken as a whole, is a sixty minute experiment into the use of music as a means to play with the concepts of space and time in search of a true psychedelic experience. The songs are long but never meander. The individual sounds are often discordant yet somehow harmonious upon combination. This is music to immerse yourself in, to get lost within, to experience on a subtle level beyond the simple pleasure of tension and release. These songs are about experiencing the journey, not yearning for the destination. Big Moon Ritual is a transportation device to the ultimate truth, and that truth – judging by the mature lyrical content – is love.

Metaphysics aside, these are strong songs performed by expert craftsmen. Perhaps the strongest cycle that Robinson has written in his long and impressive career. The subtle difference between the past and the present is that these songs sprout from beautiful melodies, whereas the bulk of his work with The Black Crowes was rooted in the big riffs provided by his brother Rich Robinson.

Underneath all of the jamming and aural experimentation are some absolutely gorgeous tunes: Star or Stone, Reflections on a Broken Mirror, Beware, Oh Take Care and One Hundred Days of Rain are just stunners. In a weird way it reminds me of Tom Waits in that underneath the cacophony of sound are perfect melodies that could have been composed by Carole King or Burt Bacharach.

There’s really only one rocker in the bunch – a funky little number called Rosalee that is instantly appealing and addictive. But rather than just deliver a tight song the Brotherhood drops in a long bridge that once again defies expectations and elevates the song to a higher plane. This approach is mirrored in the lyrics where at first it seems like Chris is lazily employing clichés, until you realize that the song is all clichés – an oblique commentary on love song structure itself.

Even a straightforward number like Tomorrow Blues is buoyed by the impressive performance of the band (and this is definitely a band, even if Chris’s name is featured to help sell tickets) – the rhythm section of Mark Dutton (bass) and George Sluppick (drums) is both loose and tight, adeptly providing the foundation for exploration while always swinging. When needed, George will provide an interesting fill, or a martial beat, but they’ll always defer to the front-line of Robinson (guitar), Neal Casal (lead guitar) and Adam MacDougall (keys).

I have written at length of my love for Neal Casal and I’ll state once again that Neal might just be the most under-appreciated player in the business. He has the delicate touch of a certain Mr. Garcia, the ability to play as much or as little as is needed to get his point across. His tone is perfect, his playing is fluid and he can solo, play slide or just add texture.

Adam MacDougall provides a definitional sound to this band. It’s often his tone that dominates the sound and he’s a bold, audacious player. He’s funky, spacey and jazzy all at once. You can imagine some of his lines being played by a horn. I can’t imagine this band without him.

But of course, the song begins and ends with Christopher Robinson. No longer willing or able to scream over a loud band, Chris’s vocals have entered a new territory. He’s now fully a soul singer and his phrasing and delivery is unique and fluid. This is no act. He’s not playing a character. Chris is singing authentically, confidently and beautifully. It’s probably his most impressive vocal performance to date.

Of course, his vocals are well supported by the unbelievable harmony and backing vocals from the rest of the band. In many ways it’s their secret weapon and another manifestation of their cohesiveness as a unit.

It’s safe to say that this is not music for everyone. In fact, it’s probably for very few of us. For some it won’t rock enough, for others it will jam too much. But as a musical statement – and a philosophical expression – it is a triumph.

Tulsa Yesterday: 3
Rosalee: 4
Star or Stone: 4
Tomorrow Blues: 3
Reflections on a Broken Mirror: 4
Beware, Oh Take Care: 4
One Hundred Days of Rain: 4
Big Moon Ritual: 3.7 (out of 4)

4 = great (exceptional composition/performance)
3 = good (a song you’ll always listen to)
2 = okay (has some redeeming qualities)
1 = poor (has no redeeming qualities)

If you’re interested in more stuff like this, I have previously written at length about both the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and The Black Crowes.

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Now I’ll Never Know If That Guy Is British

After many, many years of commuting into Boston on the train, tomorrow commences my new driving to the suburbs commute. In truth, I’m largely indifferent to the switch as there are good and bad aspects to both driving and taking the train.

However, the one devastating aspect of the commute switch is that I’ll never figure out if that guy is British or not. And it’s tough to give up on such an important project after four or five years of committed work.

People might think that a project dedicated to determining a stranger’s Britishness is both stupid and unnecessary. “Stupid” because I could just ask the guy if he’s British – but in my mind that’s cheating. “Unnecessary” because at this late date who really cares if someone is British? It’s not the 60s – the Brits aren’t really doing anything notable except for marrying off their second-rate comedians to our second-rate pop stars. (Editor’s note: confirm whether Russell Brand is really British or just stares like that because he’s an animatronic robot.)

Since the project is all but cancelled I might as well share my findings to date:

PRO: he’s tall and skinny. One might say he’s lanky. Brits are definitely lanky, while Americans tend to be fat. I’m not criticizing Americans for being fat. In fact, among my people, being fat is a sign of success and great power. (Please note that “my people” are fat Americans.)

CON: he has not worn any soccer scarves or called soccer “footie”, even during the Official Premier League P.G. Tips Championship Bowl season. Then again, if I was a Brit trying to fit in with Americans the first thing I would do is stop pretending that soccer is a sport for grown ups.

PRO: he wears a lot of fleece and off-colored socks. I’m not sure what it is with the Europeans and the off-colored socks but they definitely struggle with the basic “wear white socks with sneakers, but only with sneakers” rule. If he is British he probably calls his socks “stockings” and has street urchins darn them for him. Alas, I have not seen any urchins darning in his presence.

CON: he’s never once hummed a Rod Stewart song, talked about Rod Stewart, or worn an air-brushed jean jacket with Rod Stewart on the back. If I was British I’m pretty sure that all I’d ever talk about is Rod Stewart because Rod Stewart is clearly the greatest person ever to come out of the British empire. (Editor’s note: confirm that Roderick is of English and Scottish descent and that his birthday is January 10th and that he still hasn’t written back.) Admittedly I’m not sure if Brits love Rod as much as I do, but I really, really love Rod and would be outwardly proud to come from the same country as him.

I should probably confess that it isn’t entirely true that I’ve never tried to directly ascertain if he was British. Once at the hockey rink I hovered around him and his kids hoping he would yell at them, seeing how we all yell at our kids at the hockey rink (it’s cold and crowded and kids are stupid). But he never said a word, which might actually indicate Britishness (Brits don’t yell at their kids in public. They have the kid’s governess take away their figgy pudding as punishment for bad behavior.)

I should also probably confess that one day on the train I saw him sitting alone and I plopped my fat, definitely-American ass next to his skinny, probably-British arse, in the hopes that he’d call his wife or talk to the conductor. Once again, he never said a word. I pushed my luck further when the conductor announced the wrong train line and I said something hee-larious like “I hope that’s not where we’re going!!” and he just grunted in response (again, a very British rejoinder.)

So there you have it. I’m off the train and now I’ll never know if that guy is British. I mean, in my heart I know he’s British, but confirmation would have been nice.

Then again, he’s probably relieved that the creepy red guy has apparently disappeared from his life. It’s funny how one man’s scientist is another man’s stalker.

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Concert Review: Bobby Keys & The Sufferin Bastards at the Highline Ballroom in NYC, 3/9/12

Concert Review:
Bobby Keys & The Sufferin Bastards
March 9, 2012
Highline Ballroom, NYC

Is rock and roll dead?

It’s a question that I’ve been ruminating on for many years now.

In one sense, rock and roll can never die, because rock and roll is an attitude as well as a genre of music. It’s the spirit of revolution and free expression. The societal changes that rock and roll both instigated and reflected are now a fundamental part of our culture. In that sense (hey hey, my my) rock and roll can never die.

But the music that we associate with rock and roll has largely lost its relevancy in today’s pop culture landscape. The heavy backbeat and electric guitar-driven sound that we associate with the golden age of rock and roll (roughly from Chuck Berry to The Sex Pistols) was really just a 20-year blip in the music world. Singles have once again displaced the long player album. Rock radio is practically nonexistent, and the charts are consistently ruled by pop, R&B and country.

So, while the spirit of rock and roll might not be dead, the musical style associated with classic rock is certainly on the endangered species list. In many ways, the kids live-tweeting the 2012 Grammys awards said it best:

“Who’s Paul McCartney?”

***

There was not one person in the house on Friday night who didn’t know who Paul McCartney was. It was a room full of true believers, classic rock music fans gathered together for a trip down the Main Street of rock and roll. Behind the wheel was none other than Bobby Keys, Mr. Brown Sugar himself, the legendary sax man behind more iconic bands, songs and riffs than just about anyone else. His credits include everything from Elvis to Dion to Joe Cocker, all four Beatles, and of course, his long-time association as Keith Richard’s best friend and musical foil in The Rolling Stones.

The idea of building a musical revue centered around Bobby Keys’ discography is utter genius in its simplicity; for not only is Bobby an extremely affable performer on stage, but his presence – and the staggeringly gorgeous tone of his sax – render these songs as something more than just cover tunes. Yes, these tunes are famous for being written and performed by others. But Bobby’s role is so crucial that you just can’t imagine them without him.

This is the real deal.

***

Then again, it doesn’t hurt that Bobby’s band is packed with a few ringers. While this is clearly the Bobby Keys experience, Bobby shares the front of the stage with Dan Baird (Georgia Satellites) who really impressed me with both his incredible energy and his vocal flexibility. Imagine being asked to move like Jagger, to bellow like Cocker, to croon like Dion and to crow like Rod all in one evening. That’s a tall order for anyone and Dan really nailed it.

Driving the sound was the power duo of Steve Gorman and Nick Govrik – the Trigger Hippy bandmates – who set a steady beat and deftly moved from fast rockers to jazzy jams. It was great to see Steve in full Charlie Watts mode with a small kit and a big groove. Rounding out the all-star crew was keyboardist Michael Webb and guitar player Chark von Kinsolving, both of whom picked their spots well – knowing when to step up and when to let Bobby and Dan shine.

***

The setlist was a rock nerd’s dream come true with 5 Stones tunes, 2 Cocker songs, 2 solo Beatles numbers, 2 homages to Bobby’s inspiration King Curtis, the aforementioned Faces tune, Dion’s “The Wanderer” and a little honky tonk ditty called “You Look Like I Could Use A Drink”. It was one of those night where you knew every song as soon as the opening bars were played and you were thrilled to hear each and every one of them. And the night got even more special when the great Joan Osborne walked on stage to take the lead vocal on a gorgeous rendition of George Harrison’s “What is Life”. (My only regret is that Joan didn’t sing another song that would have demonstrated her full vocal abilities because, as all of us Beatles Rock Band experts know, the George songs are the easy ones!)

But beyond all of this – the great players, songs and performances – the most impressive thing of the night was the man himself. Bobby was clearly under the weather. You could tell how much of a struggle it was for him to perform. Yet whenever that sax touched his lips it was pure magic. Some form of aural alchemy occurs that allows Bobby to transform his breath into music that literally gives you goosebumps. Have no doubts: the sound of Bobby Key’s saxophone is the sound of classic rock.

And this night was his Michael Jordan game 5 1997 finals “flu” game. You can’t keep the greats down.

***

What more can I say about Bobby Keys & The Sufferin Bastards? They make good old fashioned rock and roll using the original recipe. If you want proof that rock and roll still lives (and it does as long as artists like Bobby Keys roam the stage) then go check them out.

***

(Full disclosure: If I were a real journalist I might be tempted to mention that I have a prior relationship with Mr. Gorman and that we interviewed Bobby Keys on our podcast last year. Rest assured that Bobby probably has no recollection of our talk and it wouldn’t affect my review in any way. Then again, you’d probably enjoy listening to the podcast – it’s a full hour of rock and roll history from the inside. Also, Bobby’s new memoir “Every Night is a Saturday Night” just came out and I’m sure that it’s chock full of more amazing stories.)

***

S E T L I S T (original artist version being covered)

Live With Me (The Rolling Stones)
The Letter (Joe Cocker)
The Wanderer (Dion DiMucci)
Soul Serenade (King Curtis)
Had Me a Real Good Time (Faces)
Sweet Virginia (The Rolling Stones)
You Look Like I Could Use a Drink (Dan Baird)
Brown Sugar (The Rolling Stones)
Whatever Gets You Through The Night (John Lennon)
*What Is Life (George Harrison)
Bitch (The Rolling Stones)
Harlem Nocturne (King Curtis)
Delta Lady (Joe Cocker)
E: Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (The Rolling Stones)

B A N D

Bobby Keys, saxophone
Dan Baird, vocals, guitar
Steve Gorman, drums
Nick Govrik, bass
Michael Webb, keys, accordian
Chark von Kinsolving, guitar
*Joan Osborne, vocals

Cracking the Guy Fieri Code

If you’re like me – and I certainly hope for your sake that you are – you view Food TV celebro-chef Guy Fieri as nothing less than the first horseman of the apocalypse. From the moment Guy first shone his frosted tips on the small screen (during 2006’s Next Food Network Star) he has been eminently hateable. A short list of things I hated about Guy:

1) The aforementioned frosted spiky hair;
2) Even worse, the faux-Colonel Sanders half-frosted goatee;
3) The sunglasses on the back of the neck. I REALLY hate those;
4) The polyester bowling shirts with the too long almost-capris shorts;
5) The flip-flops with his stupid, pudgy toes sticking out everywhere;
6) The mid-forearm sweatband. (Who does he think he is, Phil Lesh?);
7) The whole rock-and-roll attitude; and
8) The fact that his name is spelled FIERI but he pronounces it FEE-ETTY. THERE IS NO “T” IN FIERI, GUY!

Yup, those are the thing I hated about Guy. Hated. As in, “used to hate.”

I’ll never forget the exact moment when Guy won my heart. It was on Saturday, April 30, 2010. I was in Louisville, KY at the Barnstable-Brown Gala the night before the Kentucky Derby. And do you know why I’ll never forget that night? Because I still have the program. And because that night I saw a man who gave his soul to the crowd, holding nothing back. Do you know who that man was? It was Joey Fatone. But another man was also really cool. And that second man was Guy Fieri.

One of my superpowers is the power of eye reading. I can study someone’s eyes, whether in a photograph or in person, and tell their true emotions at the time, regardless of what they’re saying or doing. And as I stared into the deep vats of fryolator oil that were Guy’s eyes, I saw a man that gave off a lot of positive vibes. I saw a man that took energy from the crowd and gave it back to them three-fold. Guy was magnificent. You could say that Guy made love to that crowd, but that would be kind of wrong and creepy.

Anyway, I really liked/respected Guy when I saw him in person dealing with the hoi polloi and now I like him lots better on the tee vee. Plus, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives is on almost 17 hours a day, so it’s practically impossible not to watch him.

But here’s the thing about Triple Dee: Guy never says a bad word about ANY restaurant he visits, no matter how awful it obviously is. Remember, Guy is all about positive vibes, man. But for us home viewers we want to figure out whether we really should bother to truck out to Montana to get that cheeseburger made entirely out of bacon. That’s why I’ve devised this handy guide for figuring out how much Guy really likes the diner, drive-in and/or dive. I call it the Guy Fieri Code:

One Star (Dump): The first sign of trouble is when Guy focuses on the chef or the restaurant rather than the food. When Guy has nothing good to say about whatever he’s stuffing into his gullet he starts talking about how the guy is “doing it right” or the decor is “outrageous”. Basically anything but the food. You’ll note that sad-Guy observes things, while happy-Guy describes his feelings about things. It’s an important distinction.

Two Stars (Disappointment): The next level up is when Guy respects your efforts and your ingredients, but doesn’t really love the dish. He wants to like it, but he honestly doesn’t, hence the soul-crushing disappointment and hint of sadness behind his eyes. At this point Guy will start to methodically list off each and every ingredient in the dish and perhaps even slip in some farm-to-table nonsense (all fruits and vegetables come from farms, so that phrase quite literally adds nothing). Disappointed Guy rues the lost opportunity and wasted grub.

Three Stars (Delighted): When Guy likes a dish, he gets really excited. He goes back for second and third bites, he fist-bumps the chef, he raves about the flavors. While he’ll talk about what makes the food so tasty, he spends most of his time talking about how much he’s enjoying it, how tasty it is, etc. In other words, it becomes about him, not about the food. The secret to his success is that Guy’s viewers get a vicarious thrill through his ecstatic experiences. Guy is assuring the viewer that this greasy sandwich is truly as delicious as they hoped and wanted it to be. He is restoring their faith in humanity.

Four Stars (Delicacy): At the very top of the scale is when Guy views the food as nothing less than a true delicacy. This is a somewhat rare, always magical happening that is also quite dangerous. When Guy really, really loves something he will hurl it into his maw at a terrifying clip, while simultaneously extolling its virtues and back-slapping the chef. I have it on good authority that Guy actually employs a full-time assistant exclusively for giving him the Heimlich maneuver and the dude is always busy. Worst off all, Guy’s actually eaten his thumb several times by accident! Another sure sign that Guy really likes a dish is when he says he “wishes he came up with it” or he’s “going to steal it for his restaurant.”

As you can see, understanding the Guy Fieri way of life isn’t as difficult as it first seems. The clues are all there. You just have to read between the lines a little bit. Guy wants to show us the way, but he also wants us to take the journey ourselves. Guy is kind of wise like that.

I sincerely hope that this helps to enlighten you and to enrich your Guy Fieri-related television viewing, not including his other mostly terrible shows. Do not be ashamed by your love for Guy Fieri. Join me out in the open, boldly declaring our love for Guy.

In Defense of Casual Fandom

The gravest insult that can be levied against any sports fan is to accuse them of “jumping on the bandwagon” – the act of becoming a vocal supporter of a team while they are in the midst of a successful run.

In Boston these fans are known as “pink hats” – an inherently sexist term that conflates pink-colored Red Sox hats with casual/fair-weather fandom. When the Sox were in the midst of their 2004-2007 glory days (2 World Series Championships, Yankees suck, etc., etc.) they became the most popular team in town (again). Suddenly everybody was sporting Sox gear, trying to score tickets to Fenway, and talking about the team. This period coincided with the proliferation of apparel variants: throw-back uniforms, crazy-colored hats and other merchandise that was designed merely to sell more crap to more people.

The line was clearly drawn in the dust: either you were a diehard fan that knew everything down to Dustin Pedroia’s suit size (boy’s 20, by the way) or you were a poseur that was stealing tickets from the real fans.

In other words, it all came down to authenticity. Were you an authentic fan that deserved to enjoy the team’s success or not?

The real problem was that the authenticity of fandom was usually determined based on fantasy sports criteria: knowledge of players and stats. Now I have nothing against fantasy sports. If you want to spend endless hours studying every player in the league so you can potentially gain some bragging rights among your loser friends, go for it. Some of us don’t have time for that jibber-jabber because we have prestige cable TV shows to watch and overly analyze on the internet.

But is it really the case that the only authentic fan is the obsessive fan? That the only way to enjoy a team’s success is if you study everything about the players, team and league? Is there no place left for the casual fan?

***

Growing up in New Jersey I felt no strong attachment to any particular team. I liked the Steelers because they were bad-asses that won 4 Super Bowls. I liked the Reds because Pete Rose was my favorite player and I thought the cartoon Mr. Red was cute. They were both successful teams at the time, so I was obviously a bandwagon jumper without even knowing it.

When we moved to Boston in 1986 I easily switched my allegiances to the Boston teams. Why not? I had no strong attachments, Pete Rose was outed as a scumbag, and I enjoyed being in a city with such great sports traditions. I have supported the Boston teams for 25 years now and plan to support them for the rest of my life.

However, while my support remains strong, my interest level certainly waxes and wanes with each team’s general performance. Does admitting this cheapen my fandom? I always support my teams, but my level of interest varies with the season.

For example, I’ve watched a ton of Celtics games over the last 5 years but couldn’t care less about them this season. Why? Because they are obviously an under-manned team that has little chance of winning. I’ll still watch some games (when Top Chef isn’t on) but I won’t get too emotionally-invested in them. Now, if Dwight Howard shows up in town before the end of the season and they make a run, I’ll get involved. Does that make me a bad fan? A bandwagon jumper? Or does that just make me someone who makes thoughtful choices about how I’d like to spend my entertainment time and dollars?

***

Being a sports fan is an easy guise for any guy to adopt. Society expects guys to be sports fans.  But to most sports fans it’s not enough just to be a fan, you have to be a diehard, an obsessive. You have to be a fanatic.

Well, I’m here to say that that’s just not true. Watching professional sports is a form of entertainment. And like any other form of entertainment it’s not up to other people to determine the value of your relationship or the depths of your personal enjoyment.

This phenomenon is definitely not limited to sports. Most sub-cultures demand obsessive devotion. Among Grateful Dead fans this odious game is called “deader than thou” where the measure of your fandom has nothing to do with how much the music means to you or how much you enjoy it, but how many shows you’ve attended, how many bootlegs you possess, and how much minutiae you can recall about some random Playing in the Band performance from 1973 (obviously the best year because no Donna).

***

In the end what it comes down to – as it almost always does – is identity. Die-hard sports fans identify themselves by their attachment and obsessive devotion to their favorite sports teams. It becomes a part of who they are –oftentimes, a large part. And they are threatened by people who seem to be enjoying sports as much as they are without putting in the same level of work or investment. And when their team wins they want to feel special, they want to feel like they are being rewarded for their investment. They deserve to celebrate the victories, because they worked for it, damn it, regardless of the painful reality that their efforts had absolutely nothing to do with the results.

So does that mean that there is no such thing as bandwagon fans? No, of course there are bandwagon fans and they’re awful people that deserve your scorn and ridicule. But there’s a huge difference between bandwagon fans and casual/fair-weather fans. Here are some simple guidelines for telling them apart:

Do you have a legitimate connection to the team’s home city?

If not, then you’re probably a bandwagon jumper.

Do you root against your hometown teams?

If so, you’re most likely a bandwagon jumper (and definitely a douchebag).

Do you change allegiances frequently?

If so, then you are a bandwagon fan and you need to stop. Just pick one and go with it.

Do you lose interest in certain sports at times?

In all honesty, that’s okay. The internet has ruined our brains so thoroughly that no sober person can make it through an entire baseball game anymore.

***

Casual sports fans: don’t be intimidated by the diehards. You have every right to follow and enjoy your team in the manner that is most appropriate for your lifestyle.

Diehard sports fans: you are not on the team. You have nothing to do with the team’s successes or failures. Playing fantasy sports and obsessing over stats is a hobby, not an investment.

There’s plenty of room on the duck boats for all of us.

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